In anticipation of Pursuit of Happiness, a new performance collaboration between Nature Theater of Oklahoma (NTOK) and the Slovenian dance compnay EnKnap Group, we invite Mark Russell, an early champion of NTOK’s work and currently director of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, to share his perspective on this new work about American’s “inalienable right” to the “pursuit of happiness.”
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence defines the drive that Americans aspire to and believe is their right. Thomas Jefferson set it down in ink. A room full of white men in wigs signed it (knowing it might be their death warrant). It was a brave moment that set this idea that we all take part in—the United States of America—off into the future. The key word is “pursuit.” “Happiness” is not promised nor defined, but the ability to strive towards whatever it is. It’s the process that is our right.
There is the question: whose happiness? Who gets to pursue this dream? Is America rigged for the white and wealthy? This country is presently going through a fractious identity crisis trying to determine who we are and where we’re going as a nation. There are some people in this country who would like it to go back to the bewigged landowners (some slave holders) who first wrote those ambitious plans. Are we bewitched by the American dream of abundance? Is that what we are pursuing? More stuff? Will that finally make us happy?
Nature Theater of Oklahoma (NTOK), led by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, created Pursuit of Happiness, a rollicking exploration of the American machismo character, in their inimitable style. Loopy, fantastical, playing with the flotsam of theater, costumes, makeup, old-fashioned set pieces, funky dance moves, all with its own intrinsic off kilter logic, Pursuit of Happiness is full of silly moments that cover a darker purpose.
Liska came to the States as a young man from the former Czechoslovakia, first landing in Oklahoma, a rather surreal introduction to the US. Born in Gainesville, Florida, Copper was raised in Southern California. They met at Dartmouth College, where they began their partnership and artistic collaboration, splitting roles as director and playwright, a fluidity of roles that continues to shape projects that reflect a unique, shared perspective on the world.
Nature Theater of Oklahoma makes plays, in the truest sense of the word. They play, and that sense of innocence and joy, the silly and the sly of real play, reveals itself in their work. Play is subversive, imaginative outrageous fun. Though when NTOK elevates it to theater it takes on more gravity as boundaries are played with and crossed. It could be the unremarkable life story of a 30-something young woman (Life and Times, presented at the Walker in 2013), or surreptitious phone interviews with the actors when they are at their day jobs (No Dice, 2007). These mundane stories gain more weight when NTOK weaves them into theater; they gain humor, poignancy, and beauty, just by their unique framing and the way they subvert our notions of story, time, and spectacle. This is serious play, as entertaining and as joyful as one can imagine, but with a kick.
Pursuit of Happiness is NTOK’s first collaboration with the EnKnap Group. EnKnap Group is primarily a dance company based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, that performs the works of Iztok Kovac, whose visceral performances, choreography, and films brought him world recognition in the 1990s. Since the mid 2000s Iztok has commissioned other choreographers to create works for his own elite company of dancers. His invitation to Liska and Copper grew out of Iztok and Liska’s shared experience of growing up in Eastern Europe and a deep respect for each other’s work.
The result is set in a prototypical Western bar with all the trappings of an American Western movie, complete with swinging doors and spittoons. However, these are dancers, not actors, from all around Europe. English is not their first language, and neither is acting. That’s part of the point. These are extremely well-trained performers trapped in a Western. This is AMERICA all dressed up its gaudy, ridiculous, macho trappings, as imagined by an Eastern European dance company.
From their earliest works on, NTOK has incorporated cowboys and Americana into their events—the iconic cowboy, the steadfast lone American who can fix it. The same American machismo that kept us in Vietnam and rolled into Iraq sure that we would be cheered as heroes. The open-carry, MAGA man who believes a wall on the border of Mexico is a great fix to the immigration problem. The kind of patriot who demands that their taxes be low and their gas cheap, no matter the consequences for the “other” guy. This is the America that knows best, and it knows how to make a profit. It’s a complicated character, this American we are constantly remaking and sharing with the world. He—and yes, for the most part, it is still a he—is our character. In the end his actions on the world stage are ours.
The members of EnKnap live in this same world, affected by American pop culture and power. Even living in Ljubljana, it is inescapable. Pursuit of Happiness is a celebration of American kitsch and at the same time an indictment of the effect the US has on the world.
A work about the American character is going to unleash the racism and struggles our country is stained with. Pursuit of Happiness opens that toxic Pandora’s box of costumes, scattering them about the playroom. Are those feathers and war paint from Native American culture? Or from Western cinematic culture? (Our TV cartoons defined Native American and Mexican culture before most of the world had a chance to really “discover” it.) Or is it “Let’s play war!” or the game of dress-up that takes place in backyards and basements across the globe? Could the war paint be a nod to the camouflage on our troops’ faces before a mission? Or is it the smudge our NFL stars apply to block the light in a football game? The character on stage is America—charming, charismatic, childish, cruel, going all out—fueled by a special blend of Red Bull to save the world. As clueless, sweet, brave, ridiculous, and dangerous as we, as a nation, often are.
Making and seeing theater is playtime, no matter how humorous or serious the material. After playing, we all must go home sometime; it might be dinner, it might be the babysitter, it might be time to mow the lawn. What we learn playing, we keep inside for a long time, it teaches us unknowable things. We find our boundaries, our humor, and our deeper feelings. We make our view of the world as we play. NTOK knows how to play, and they know how to get everyone involved.
NTOK makes theater that takes its subversion seriously. It gets our attention. It provokes us to think. It takes absurdity and pushes beyond its limits. We are living in absurd times, so absurd you could laugh, even as we feel our collective way forward. So absurd and ridiculous it hurts, so hurtful we become numb and disoriented. We forget why we’re here, and where we were all going together, what was our common pursuit and are we happy? And isn’t the pursuit of happiness what it is all about?